On dark nights in the Zagros Mountains, along a border laced with mines, smugglers sneak into Iraq from Iran, carrying explosives, drugs and guns. Some harbor items much more benign: corpses.
The cemetery, which holds the remains of millions and stretches for six miles, is said to contain the tomb of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, who founded the Shi’a branch of Islam and died in 661. To be buried near Ali, Shiites claim, is an act on par with 700 years of worship and will ensure bodies a hasty journey to heaven. Shi’i Muslims have been sending their bodies to Wadi al-Salam, by hook or by crook, for many war torn centuries.
As Iraqi tribes and Iranians adopted Shi’ism through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, corpse traffic increased. Bodies were placed in long wooden boxes covered with felt and stacked half-a-dozen high atop mules. In 1812, Shaykh Ja’far Kashif al-Ghita passed a decree to allow bodies to be carried in parts.
During the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire expanded the web of corpse traffic taxes. Corpse caravans coming from Iran paid a transport tax just to journey, an importation fee at the Iran-Iraq border and also a sanitation fee. Regulations required a body to dry out for three years before crossing. A cottage industry arose around corpse cleansing, which allowed travelers to clear inspection quicker. Inside the cemetery, fees were due to the shroud makers, grave diggers, tomb builders and hired mourners. Scholars stood graveside and chanted verses from the Koran for those whose families had paid in advance for that service.
When Ethel Stefana Lady Drower, a renowned British anthropologist who focused on the Middle East, visited the cemetery in 1922 she exclaimed: “One wonders, not at the size of these cemeteries, but at their smallness…I was told that there are 10,000 graves in Najaf, never more and never less, in spite of the annual import of corpses. What is the explanation of this strange phenomenon?”–One explanation offered was that the geology in the valley was such that the rocks and soil surrounding a grave would only hold for a short period of time before sinking and eventually collapsing down into the earth, allowing a new grave to be built on top.
High taxes ensured smugglers would always have work too. Many smuggled corpses were abandoned in the desert after run-ins with officials along the way. A number of Shi’i imams noted the scandal and began to denounce corpse trafficking in general. In 1911, Hibat al-Din al-Shahrastani published a sharp criticism of corpse traffic and called for its abandonment. This activated a debate amongst a rival group of scholars that ardently supported the practice. Chief amongst the corpse traffic supporters was ‘Abd al-Husayn Sharaf al-Din of Jabil.
Al-Shahrastani argued that Islam in its traditional form did not allow for corpse trafficking. He noted the unsanitary aspect of the practice and stressed its negative effect on the surrounding environment. He also made light of the many failed corpse transfers, such as the case of a holy man from the city of Behbahan. His son decided to take his corpse for burial at Wadi al-Salam. Neighbors, eager to have their kin buried beside, sent with the son corpses of their own. Each village the son passed added to the pile, until eventually his load included nearly 400 corpses. While the son was camped outside the Iraqi city of Basra, a fire incinerated the entire batch of bodies.
Sharaf al-Din countered al-Shahrastani’s critique point by point. Corpses were carried in coffins, he noted, which preserved the honor of the dead, maintained sanitary conditions and also protected the environment. Furthermore, argued Sharaf al-Din, the transfer of a corpse to the shrine of the imam symbolized the glorification of the dead and was the highest act a son could bestow upon his deceased parent. Burial in the vicinity of ‘Ali’s tomb, Sharaf al-Din added, had gained speedy entry to heaven for some 70,000 people.
The support of the people as well most other imams lay with Sharaf al-Din. Al-Shahrastani was labeled a heretic and expelled from Najaf. Fearing for his life, he fled to India, completely disgraced.